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SEA Games: Kristina Knott, EJ Obiena among athletics medal hopefuls

As the Philippine Amateur Track and Field Association (PATAFA) projects a grand finish in the upcoming 2019 Southeast Asian (SEA) Games, the federation is pulling all the stops to ensure a successful run.

Blessed with a new facility in New Clark City (NCC) in Capas, Tarlac, the federation eyes at least 14 golds in the biennial regional sporting meet, surpassing the gold standard set in the 1983 edition.

In stark contrast to the congested and polluted PhilSports Complex in Pasig, the NCC provides a new breath of fresh air to the country's track athletes.

"Athletes don't have a reason to say that they don't have a facility. We're giving them all the ammunition," PATAFA head Philip Ella Juico told reporters last September.

The tracksters' arsenal became loaded in the form of the newly-built 20,000-seater Athletic Stadium, which was certified to the highest standards by the International Amateur Athletics Federation (IAAF) a few weeks after that pronouncement.

Since then, national team track and field athletes had been given a chance to train in the facility and call the Athletes' Village across the street home for the past few months.

The host country even organized a successful test event to help gauge the Filipino's ability to keep up with their neighbors.

PATAFA picked up three golds in the two-day test event held last October 26 to 27, and one of which came from Filipino-American sprinter Kristina Knott.

Knott, whose Filipino lineage comes from her mother Rizalina Cayetano Lamb of Cavite, lorded over the women's 200m dash, besting compatriot Kayla Richardson and Brunei's Mahisin Maziah.

The 24-year-old had been training and staying in the country ever since she was naturalized in June 2018.

ESPN5 caught up with the sprinter while she was training with national team coach Rohsaan Griffin in Capas.

"I remember putting this on my vision board that I wanted to represent my country because my mom is Filipino, obviously, that makes me Filipino," Knott recalled.

"I was like, Oh, be cool if I can, you know, represent the Philippines."

Knott was discovered by Griffin through his vast network of coaching connections across the NCAA Division 1 in the United States. Griffin, an accomplished 200m sprinter himself in the late 1990s, first got wind of Knott when she transferred to the University of Miami from Arkansas.

"They're like, 'Man, she's good'. She has talent," as Griffin recollects what his contacts had told him.

Through an expedited effort to regain her Filipino citizenship in May 2018, Knott has been able to represent the country ever since.

Unlike the notion that permeates with other Fil-foreign athletes, Knott had immersed herself with her fellow Filipinos ever since landing in our shores.

Knott, as she mentioned, only comes home to her parents during the Christmas season.

"I kind of convinced [Knott] to come here into in 2018 to just get a feel for everything and see how it goes to get acclimated to you know, basically absorbing the culture and experiencing the same things that her teammates experience," Griffin said.

"And so upon that she decided to say, 'Hey, I'm gonna ride it out,' and, 'you know, put myself on the same level as them and immerse myself in every aspect of Filipino life' and that's where we are now."

With only five weeks' worth of training under her belt prior to the 2018 Asian Games, which was her maiden stint with the country, Knott advanced to the finals of the women's 200m sprint, but only managed to finish sixth.

Now in her inaugural SEA Games, Knott believes she can immediately give the Philippines dividends with a championship mindset she possesses moving forward.

"Well, the goal is obviously, to come out as a champion. I don't know what to expect, honestly, like, everybody's just come to this thing of like a crazy deal I mean, of course, I'm gonna put my best foot forward, but we'll see."

Another strong bet to win gold in the SEA Games is Ernest John Obiena, who also is the first Filipino to qualify for the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

Obiena cleared a personal-best 5.81 meters at a meet last September in Chiara, Italy last September, paving the way for a ticket to Tokyo.

The son of former track stars Emerson and Jeanette, EJ, as he is fondly called, was one of three athletes honored by the Philippine Sports Commission last October for bring home gold to the country.

Obiena, who will turn 24 before the start of the SEA Games, received a total of 1.6 million pesos from the government for winning gold in the Summer Universiade last July and becoming one of the top vaulters in the planet.

His finish, which is ranked 10th-best in the world, is 0.46 meters better than what Thailand's Porranot Purahon cleared in the 2017 edition to haul gold.

The lanky Olympian will have a chance to showcase his skills at the SEA Games, since he was not able to in the last outing. In a cruel turn of events, Obiena tore his anterior cruciate ligament mere days before he was set to compete in Kuala Lumpur.

Obiena, a UST alumnus, is currently in the middle of a month-long training session with famed pole vaulter-turned-coach Vitaly Petrov in Italy in preparation for a much more bigger goal - the Olympics.

"Right now all the trainings that I've been doing is leading up to leading up to Tokyo, and that's where I want to really peak," Obiena said in a phone interview.

The pole vaulter cramped up four months' worth of training in half of the time in order to accommodate the SEA Games, where he hopes, he bags gold in front of a supportive home crowd.

Obiena knows that it would be a painful lesson if he fails to deliver, but nevertheless believes that pressure is all part of every athlete's preparations for any competition.

"We trained for this, and we push ourselves to to be mature enough in upcoming competitions to be ready to handle this kind of things," he explained.

The amiable trackster also sees the upcoming competition as a once in a lifetime opportunity to win the gold since it will be the first time Obiena will participate in a Filipino-hosted international competition.

"I've been representing the Philippines in a lot of championships, but never was it held in our own country and to be this big of a competition so it's going to be exciting," he furthered.

Obiena also mentioned that he is set to return to the country by the end of November, ample time to remove jet lag and acclimatize himself to the weather.

Athletics is set to be held from December 6-10 at New Clark City Athletic Stadium, Capas, Tarlac.